As he contemplated his run for president, Senator Barack Obama repeatedly accused the Bush administration of politicizing intelligence. In 2005, for example, he declared, “At the very least, the administration shaded, exaggerated, and selectively used the intelligence available” to justify the Iraq War. He spoke against the nomination of John Bolton to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations because of “accusations related to political pressure on intelligence analysts.” The Center for American Progress repeatedly promoted the “Bush lied, people died” canard, and the New York Times declared in an editorial, “The Bush administration knowingly twisted and hyped intelligence.”
Such charges were nonsense, of course. The intelligence on Iraq was flawed, but the problem was not politicization. Saddam Hussein had lied to his own generals, who believed they were speaking truthfully in intercepted conversations and pre-war debriefs. Responding to a threat that the intelligence community overwhelmingly suggested was real, Bush did what he was sworn to do: defend America.
The sanctity of intelligence is under attack, however. Intelligence politicization has a long history. Democrats and former secretary of state Colin Powell’s own chief of staff may have accused Bush of twisting intelligence to start a “war of choice,” but for almost 50 years, politicians who were overly invested in diplomacy have twisted intelligence to protect their outreach and avoid recognizing that adversaries mean the United States harm.
In 1961, when the Kennedy administration founded the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) to create a firewall between arms-control policies and politics, Truman-era defense secretary Robert Lovett worried that the agency was “going to be a mecca for a wide variety of screwballs.” Lovett was wrong: The ACDA became a voice of reason, often checking politicians’ desire to reach arms-control deals irrespective of questions regarding Soviet compliance. The Nixon White House slashed the ACDA budget after some senators used its findings to criticize Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) I agreements. In hindsight, the ACDA was right: The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, which concluded the SALT I talks, failed to usher in an era of security, as the Soviet Union began simply to upgrade the size and lethality of its nuclear arsenal.
Not only Democrats rejoiced when Jimmy Carter won the 1976 election. During a meeting at the Pentagon to discuss the national-security transition, Carter excitedly said he had had an “unprecedented” communication from the Soviet Union expressing interest in new arms-control talks. Carter wanted nothing to stand in the way of a new agreement. While Carter sang SALT II’s praises, however, the strategic community harbored suspicions that the Soviets were cheating on earlier agreements. Throughout the late 1970s, reports reached Washington that the Soviet Union was using chemical and biological weaponry in Laos and Cambodia in violation of the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. Laotian tribesmen described clouds of colored gas and oily liquid emerging from bombs and rockets. Despite clear evidence that the Soviet commitment to treaties was ephemeral, Carter continued the SALT II talks. “The Carter team had invested so much in believing that the Soviets were well-intentioned that they found it almost impossible to reverse course,” recalled Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense under Presidents Gerald Ford and George W. Bush. Even the Democrat-controlled Senate had had enough, however. When Carter submitted the SALT II treaty to the Senate, it refused to ratify it.
It was not long before the capriciousness of diplomats and some intelligence analysts was put on full display. Twice in 1980, Dutch journalists filmed Soviet helicopters dropping canisters emitting a yellow cloud on a village in eastern Afghanistan. The American intelligence community collected plant samples with mysterious lesions, as well as tissue, blood, and urine from refugees exposed to the “yellow rain.” A National Intelligence Estimate concluded that the Soviets had been mass-producing trichothecene mycotoxin, a deadly biological toxin.
That same year, reports surfaced of an “outbreak of disease” killing over 1,000 in the Soviet city of Sverdlovsk, today’s Yekaterinburg. Western intelligence blamed an anthrax outbreak at a biological-weapons facility; but the Kremlin attributed their deaths to tainted meat. Witnesses and émigrés reported quarantine and decontamination efforts. Satellite imagery showed that a building in the suspect military complex was quickly abandoned. In both cases, Soviet violation of the Biological Weapons Convention appeared to be certain.
The Soviets might have been bad, but for many U.S. diplomats, Ronald Reagan was worse. Many American academics and civil servants feared that Reagan might use proof of Soviet cheating to justify renewed chemical-weapons research, or as a reason to abandon arms-control negotiations. Diplomats and analysts rushed to dismiss Hmong-refugee interviews they had previously deemed credible, and government scientists proposed that the “yellow rain” was a mixture of pollen and bee feces; its appearance exclusively in war zones was a coincidence. In other words, they cherry-picked data to reach diplomatically expedient conclusions. Intelligence officials, too, questioned the Sverdlovsk incident, explaining that the intelligence did not meet the burden of proof.
When, in 1983, a spy satellite detected a new Soviet radar complex near Krasnoyarsk arrayed for a military purpose, a clear violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, some intelligence analysts, former officials, and groups such as the Arms Control Association and the Federation of American Scientists dismissed the site as insignificant. William D. Jackson, a professor at Miami University in Ohio, actually recommended that the United States should “avoid inordinately intrusive inspection and verification procedures which hinder progress in arms control.”
Once Reagan left office, however, there was no longer any need for diplomats and intelligence analysts to worry about his hawkishness. The intelligence community restored its initial conclusion that the Soviet Union had used biological weapons. In 1990, the Russian press exposed the KGB cover-up at Sverdlovsk, and two years later President Boris Yeltsin acknowledged that the Soviet Union had maintained an offensive biological-weapons program. As for Kranoyarsk? The Russians admitted they had cheated.
The Cold War may have ended the Soviet menace, but the threat of rogue regimes continued. Shortly after taking office in 1993, Bill Clinton pressured the International Atomic Energy Agency to downplay North Korean non-cooperation: To accurately acknowledge Pyongyang’s cheating might have precipitated a crisis. When the General Accounting Office reported in 1999 that it could not verify North Korean distribution of U.S. food aid, the State Department refused to accept the findings, to avoid an admission of North Korean cheating that would undermine further engagement.
In the months before 9/11, senior diplomats worried that unvarnished intelligence about terrorism might hamper diplomacy. In a 2001 Atlantic Council report, for example, senior statesmen Lee H. Hamilton, James Schlesinger, and Brent Scowcroft suggested that the State Department stop publishing its Patterns of Global Terrorism report in order to avoid putting terrorism front and center in the public debate. And as Iran’s nuclear program grew rapidly, the National Intelligence Council in 2007 charged intelligence analysts known for their partisan rancor with drafting a new National Intelligence Estimate that cherry-picked evidence and arbitrarily altered definitions to conclude that Tehran had ceased its nuclear-weapons work. In effect, the CIA and State Department applied to Bush the same treatment they had used to constrain Reagan.
Despite Obama’s castigation of Bush, no administration in modern history has dismissed intelligence as cavalierly as Obama has. Within the White House, “terrorism” became euphemistically “man-caused disasters.” When a gunman inspired by al-Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaki murdered 13 soldiers at Fort Hood, administration hacks scrubbed any mention of radical Islamism from the fact-finding report. That set the stage for the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, in which political operatives dismissed intelligence suggesting that it was an Islamist terrorist attack, and instead claimed it was a spontaneous reaction to a YouTube video. To prevent the truth from emerging, senior State Department officials allegedly threatened whistleblowers.
In April 2013, Syrian leader Bashar Assad used chemical weapons, an action that Obama had suggested eight months earlier would trigger a U.S. military response. Iran, meanwhile, accelerated aid to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. Rather than address reality, the White House went into full politicization mode, suggesting that, despite the intelligence community’s findings, evidence of chemical-weapons use in Syria was inconclusive. Perhaps it was that troubling bee feces again. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, meanwhile, abruptly altered a Pentagon report to Congress, recasting a resurgent Iran sending Revolutionary Guardsmen to Syria as acting in self-defense.
Politicization is rife within the intelligence community and among its consumers. Too many officials sworn to protect and defend the United States twist intelligence — not to tar enemies but to exculpate them. Never in history, however, has deliberately underestimating enemy capabilities or denying their ambitions led to peace. The true cost of dismissing radical Islamism, denying chemical-weapons use, and downplaying Iranian aggressiveness could ultimately be far greater than those who are twisting the intelligence can imagine.
— Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.